Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Self-Represented Litigants

More people are representing themselves in court:


This is wonderful news. This will force the court system to be more open to the general population and will cause state legislatures to avoid emphasizing procedure over substance. We already see that happening in family court, where the system has been made consumer-friendly. Tellingly, the California State Bar approved "unbundled services" for family law services first.

The law is the only place where the authorities used to demand that clients get full service or nothing at all. That's like forcing someone who just wants a haircut to get a manicure and pedicure at the same place or get no service whatsoever. That kind of system has never made any sense to me.

In addition, self-represented clients can get flat fees for unbundled work, such as responding to motions or making a specific court appearance, which places the consumer in control rather than the attorney. From the financial perspective of the consumer, unbundled services are excellent because they create more competition, which leads to lower prices, and they allow the consumer to control exactly what s/he pays for specific services.

"Full service" was fine when civil lawyers charged more reasonable fees, and when it was easier to get to trial. Now, it sometimes takes more than a year to get a civil court trial, by which time 6 to 50 very expensive motions have been filed. If the State Bar forces attorneys to offer only full service, the business-savvy lawyers--by that I mean the ones that want to stay in business--will demand deposits of $5,000 to $10,000 before taking on any case. High deposits reduce court access to the poor and middle-class.

Unfortunately, the days of the "country lawyer" are long gone. I try to be a country lawyer, but it is becoming more and more difficult because I end up becoming more of a counselor and therapist than an attorney. When clients know their lawyer won't charge them for emails and phone calls or will cut fees, it creates an incentive to contact the lawyer more than necessary, and to use the lawyer as a therapist. This, in turn, can make an attorney who cares about his/her clients more emotionally involved in the case, causing the attorney to absorb the clients' negative emotions (after all, few people contact a lawyer because something good has happened).

In any case, the "full service only" system requires, practically speaking, a large deposit up front and places the control of that money solely and immediately in the hands of the lawyer. An unethical attorney can easily deplete the initial deposit and dump the client if the client chooses not to provide more funds. Thus, a "full service only" system--by creating an incentive for larger initial deposits--rewards lawyers who see their clients as short-term business propositions, because the less you care about your fellow human being, the easier it is to dump them if they fail to pay your bills or run out of money. In contrast, with unbundled services, the client has more leverage to demand a flat fee and the lawyer has an incentive to do good work so the client comes back.

The best definition of morality I've seen was from Immanuel Kant: "Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end." A "full service only" legal system favors attorneys who treat their clients as "means to an end" by reducing the power and choice the consumer/client has in legal transactions. As such, an argument may be made that "full service only" is an intrinsically unethical system.

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